Jailed US journalists in North Korea 'could be set free'

North Korea has not yet sent two convicted US journalists to a prison labour camp – in a possible attempt to seek talks with Washington on their release.

A scholar who visited the country said Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who work for former US vice president Al Gore’s Current TV, are being kept at guest house in the North Korean capital and have not yet been sent to a prison camp as called for in their sentences.

University of Georgia political scientist Han Park told a South Korean newspaper: “I heard from North Korean officials that the American journalists were doing fine at a guest house in Pyongyang.”

Park, originally from South Korea, arrived in Seoul yesterday, following a trip to Pyongyang.

Ling and Lee were detained near the North Korean border with China and were sentenced last month to 12 years of hard labour for entering the country illegally and “hostile acts”.

Park said North Korean officials were angry at the journalists for trying to produce a programme critical of North Korea. But he said the issue could be resolved.

A South Korean who helped organise the journalists’ reporting trip to China, the Rev Chun Ki-won, said in April that the women travelled to the border region with North Korea to interview women and children who had fled the impoverished country.

“North Korea’s move not to carry out the sentence suggests that it could release them through a dialogue with the US and they could be set free at an early date, depending on the US gesture,” Park said.

His comments came days after Ling told her sister, journalist Lisa Ling, during a 20-minute telephone call that a government pardon was their only hope for freedom.

Their detention comes as the US is moving to enforce United Nations as well as its own sanctions against the communist regime for its 25 May nuclear test.

The North also fired seven ballistic missiles in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

North Korea and the US fought on opposite sides of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations.

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